The plight of the giraffe is grim, though tourists could be the saviour

23 Jun 2017

Giraffe. Image: InnaVar/Shutterstock

We’re using conservationists’ best tools against them, and wildlife is the ultimate loser. We all play a part in solving this problem.

Human population growth, human encroachment into wild environments, and a general friction between human and beast is decimating populations of giraffes, big cats and almost every species in between.

What’s more troubling is that, often, the better our conservation efforts, the easier it is to poach.

Future Human

How do we know how many tigers there are in the wild, for instance? WWF monitors this closely, with arduous, labour-intensive tracking in remote parts of Asia the price paid for keeping tallies that, at the very best, are rough estimates.

Modern technology, though, can make things much easier. GPS collars, for example, could help. Fixed to a few tigers, their tracking can reveal patterns of behaviour, eating areas and, ultimately, populations.

Drones, too, can help as they can be relatively quiet investigators in the depths of the jungle.

Tiger. Image: miroslav chytil/Shutterstock

Image: miroslav chytil/Shutterstock

This all seems positive but, given humanity’s history, we should probably have known that every positive is laced with a costly thirst for destruction.

A study earlier this year found that it’s often these wonderful tracking mechanisms that are allowing wily poachers to make even easier kills. Examples found by the researchers include basic problems with how data is stored and, when publicly funded, who can view it.

Animal tracking can reveal their locations (sometimes almost in real time), past movements and general route navigation, which can help people locate and kill as they wish.

Although not developed for this function, the researchers found startling examples of just how messed up the whole process is around the world.

In Minnesota, for example, anglers petitioned for access to pike movement data, claiming that it should be made available as it’s publicly funded. They were unsuccessful in their requests but it shows the confused world we’re creating in terms of conservation.

“Similarly, tracking data were misused in a shark-culling program in Western Australia,” reads the paper.

Wildlife, Conservation, Poaching

Concerned researchers went even further and put some blame on amateur enthusiasts, who invest in better and better photography kits to get closer to the action.

The more they encounter animals, the more likely there will be a dropping of the guard, from either side.

“After photographers used telemetry to track animals tagged by researchers and managers, Parks Canada implemented a public ban on VHF radio receivers in Banff National Park,” reads the study.

“In India, attempts were made to hack GPS collar information from endangered Bengal tigers in a case of ‘cyber poaching’.”

It all makes for concerning reading and, in the months that have passed since this paper’s publication, things have not gotten any better for many large, wild animals.

Giraffes, in particular, are in trouble.

It’s only in recent years that we found out there were several species of giraffe wandering throughout Africa, and how rare it is that they breed.

Since these discoveries, populations have plummeted – by 97pc in the case of one species. Given the slow reproduction rates (females give birth to around five calves in their lives, and not all survive), it means that one of the most iconic animals in the world is nearing the brink.

“The biggest threats to the animals are rapid human population growth and the influx of herders, along with refugees fleeing regional conflicts,” according to Science.

“In the refugee camps bordering Kenya and Somalia, for instance, bush meat, including giraffes, is an important source of food for half a million destitute people.”

The flicker of light at the end of the tunnel might just prove a handy one: countries are beginning to fret over wildlife tourism.

7pc of world tourism relates to wildlife tourism, growing annually at about 3pc, according to John Scanlon, secretary general of CITES. These figures fluctuate hugely throughout the world, but it’s quite clear the countries that are home to this wildlife will clearly benefit most from conservation.

Rhino. Image: Jonathan Pledger/Shutterstock

Image: Jonathan Pledger/Shutterstock

Scanlon recently wrote about how effective this thirst for income is proving. Speaking of the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya, he explained that the region’s need for tourism was evident when looking at the more than 1,000 people working in the sector.

“I spoke with local people who told me that the rhino and the elephant bring them security, healthcare and education, and no one must interfere with these animals,” he wrote.

“They are today the best protectors of the wildlife, working with local rangers. Their development is being achieved through conservation.”

Poaching is down, tourism revenue is growing and, perhaps, an escape from the common trend is noticeable.

“The reality is that the tourism sector is not a fringe player in the fight against illegal wildlife trade – it is right at the centre of it,” Scanlon said.

The evidence at Yellowstone National Park in the US, for example, should be enough to justify that claim.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic